Friday, March 17, 2006

Professor Sirius T. Morlock: Smuggler

I had coffee with DeeDee today at a café on Amsterdam Avenue. It was too crowded to have a proper conversation, and we were forced to hunch toward each other and whisper conspiratorially. From the looks we received, I imagine most of the café’s other customers thought we were plotting a coup—which, given the subject of our conversation, wouldn’t have been a bad guess. (Although they may well have been sneaking peeks at DeeDee who, thanks to an unfortunate chemical spill in her laboratory, smelled like rotten eggs and cheap air freshener.)

Here’s what DeeDee told me. Last night, DeeDee spoke with her father—a respected chemistry professor at Columbia. She was fishing for information about the man in the stacks, but she caught an unexpected species of scoop. When asked if he had heard anything about a man living in Butler Library, DeeDee’s father simply laughed. No one’s lived in any of Columbia’s libraries for more than thirty years, he told her. Obviously this led to the very question that must have flashed through your brain a moment ago. Who was living in the libraries back then? DeeDee asked. I was, her father said.

In 1968, students at Columbia staged an uprising. Protesting the Vietnam War, the draft, and the university’s “friendly” relationship with the U.S. government, the students took over the school. They seized and occupied many of the university’s buildings. No classes were held, and no one other than the protesters was allowed inside. Among the young activists was DeeDee’s father, who in 1968 was an eighteen-year-old Columbia student. For almost a week, DeeDee’s father lived in Low Library—one of the oldest structures on the campus. (Built on the former site of the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum’s main building, I might add.) He slept in the President’s office and smuggled food to his fellow protesters using the many little-known tunnels under the school. As fascinating as it was to imagine DeeDee’s brilliant father as a renegade peanut butter smuggler, what made his daughter and I almost giddy with excitement was a crude drawing her father had made on a scrap of graph paper. It was a map of the tunnels underneath our school.


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